The Defenses of Savannah


The Confederate Army built the defenses of Savannah around the original system developed by James Oglethorpe in 1733 when the city was settled.

The most important position was Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island with brick walls up to seven feet thick.

After it was taken in April, 1862 by a new type of Union gun, the 30-pounder Parrot rifled cannon, local defense relied on a system of small earthworks that included Fort Jackson, Fort Mercer (nine guns), Fort Barstow at Causton’s Bluff, Beaulieu (‘bew lee’) Battery (eight guns), and the batteries at Whitemarsh Island, Greenwich, Thunderbolt, Isle of Hope, and Rosedew. This interior line of defense supported the forces at Wilmington Island, Green Island (Fort Screven), and Fort McAllister, the southern anchor. Fort Jackson was headquarters for the smaller batteries. They communicated with each other by telegraph and semaphore flags. The ironclad CSS Georgia was an additional anchored battery.

These earthwork fortifications were constructed using wood frame molds to shape the walls. Slaves excavated dirt and carried it in wheelbarrows and wicker baskets to dump in the mold, then tamp it down with wooden pestles. The typical work day began at 8:00 AM and ended one hour before sundown. Once the walls were completed the forms were removed.

General Robert E. Lee visited the eight guns (and 75 tents) of Fort Screven in the fall of 1861. In 1862 he inspected Fort Barstow. During this inspection a cannon was tested that had an extended range of five miles. The gun exploded and its upper half went over Gen. Lee’s head, falling into a marsh several hundred yards beyond. Others around him were killed and wounded, but he was unharmed.

Fort McAllister was built by hand using sand and mud in 1861 at Genesis Point on the Ogeechee River. The original battery was enlarged in 1863 to form a hexagon. Often harassed by Union gunboats, it saw only ten total days of combat. The McAllister earthworks proved their worth when they were bombarded by the Union ironclad Montauk in February and March of 1863. Overnight the walls of earth were easily repaired. The commander of the fort, Maj. John B. Gallie, was the sole casualty.

Lt. Alfred L. Hartridge of the DeKalb Riflemen wrote about Fort McAllister: “only government rations to eat and nothing to keep the mosiquitoes, red bugs, etc.”

Thunderbolt, located on a high bluff, protected the approach from Wassaw Sound. Large live oak trees were placed in the river below to obstruct enemy vessels.

Thunderbolt held a variety of artillery: 8 inch Columbiads, 8 inch Navy guns, 7 inch rifled guns, 42-pounders, 32-pounders, 24-pounders, and a mortar.

Capt. Cornelius R. Hanleiter described Thunderbolt in his diary entry of December 1, 1861:

“The Rifle men are in charge of the Battery at Thunderbolt – five large guns – and seem to be very comfortably quartered. They have a beautiful location, on a high bluff, commanding the river at this point.”

In its February 7, 1862 issue, the Philadelphia Enquirer described Thunderbolt Battery as: “…having four guns and located on the water approach from Wassaw Sound up the Wilmington River. And if in their [the Union’s] possession, they could land 20,000 men and march them into the South.”

A local newspaper reported on May 19, 1862: “Last Saturday night at Thunderbolt, more Yankees attempted to land, and were fired upon by our pickets. None of our men were injured.”

In March, 1862, Skidaway Battery was abandoned and its guns moved to Thunderbolt. The guns of Green Island and Wassaw went to Beaulieu Battery.

Col. Gorgas, Chief of Artillery, reported on March 31, 1863 that Thunderbolt held 14 guns.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis inspected the Phoenix Riflemen (Company B of the 63rd Georgia Infantry) of Thunderbolt Battery in October of 1863.

“Camp Fanny Hill,” named for a young Savannah lady, provided female entertainment and diversion to nearby Thunderbolt, as recorded by Private William Haden. Suitable pleasures were available.

When Sherman approached a railroad cut to view the Confederate defenses of Savannah, he had his close call. A Union Major noted in his diary: “The General had a very narrow escape from a shell today.” And another soldier from Iowa recorded: “It did not miss him over a foot.” The cannon ball skipped over the ground, bounced, and decapitated a black soldier walking nearby.

Thunderbolt never fell to enemy attack from the sea. When Sherman’s army overran Fort McAllister on December 13, 1864, the Thunderbolt garrison, commanded by Col. Edward C. Anderson, spiked their guns and evacuated to Fort Jackson joining the other batteries. This force went by steamer to Screven’s Ferry and marched on to Hardeeville, South Carolina. Some of Sherman’s troops departed for the Carolina Campaign from Thunderbolt.

Fort Pulaski, Fort Jackson, and Fort McAllister are today preserved sites. Because of neglect, nothing remains of Thunderbolt Battery, now the location of Thunderbolt Yacht Sales (